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Should Canada institute a period of mandatory military service?

MICHAEL A. SMITH is the assistant editor of Legion Magazine. A Newfoundlander, he previously worked as a reporter for CBC Radio’s “The Broadcast” and for the Ottawa Citizen. Smith is also an award-winning poet.
Illustrations by Joel Kimmel

Michael A. Smith says NO

The Canadian military is facing an enlistment and image issue. The rate of new service members is falling; and recruitment efforts are failing. But is the remedy to implement mandatory service for all Canadians in a certain age range? No. Here’s why. 

What makes a good soldier? Being motivated is a start. Like in any job, when employees aren’t inspired, the quality of work tends to decrease. Is Canada’s military willing to take quantity over quality? That’s what’s at stake.

The military is better off training people who want to be there. Soldiers who aren’t completely committed can lead to more mistakes, which in turn could increase the number of casualties.

Money is also a factor. It’s a better investment to develop people who are in it for the long haul. How many employers are willing to pay for an employee’s training knowing they’re going to quit soon? Not many. So, why should the Canadian government do it? 

In total, 65 per cent of Israelis shirk service without repercussions

Look at Israel. In 2015, it started a multi-year plan to reduce the length of compulsory service. Their aim was to create a more efficient military, both financially and logistically. 

Plus, the concept of mandatory service doesn’t live up to its reality. It doesn’t apply to everyone. In Israel, ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab Israelis are exempt. Among those eligible, the enlistment rate in Israel is now about 50 per cent. In total, 65 per cent of Israelis shirk service without repercussions. Why would Canadians be different? 

If the argument for mandatory service is that we need to be ready for anything, especially those pesky Russians edging to the Arctic, well, I have news: Canada will likely never win an arms race with Russia. So, why pretend that compulsory training will make a difference?

And even if the purpose of such a mandate is to foster national unity, it won’t work. When conscription was introduced in Canada in 1917, protests the following spring in Quebec City by French Canadians left four dead and dozens injured. 

If the goal is to create a sense of camaraderie and instill disciple and fitness, then there are better ways. Some provinces, such as Ontario, require high school students to complete community service hours to graduate. Which creates a sense of community, grows discipline and teaches new skills—without putting their lives on pause. 

Compulsory service may also set people behind in their personal and professional development by making them take time off school or work. It would also impact their families. Think of rural communities where it’s all hands on deck. Taking a young person off the farm or out of the family shop could disrupt those small businesses.

Yes, the Canadian military is faltering. Yes, there could be a future danger. But mandatory service is not the answer. It will only anger Canadians, put stress on families, cost taxpayers money and risk damaging young peoples’ professional development.

If we want to increase enlistment, we need a better sales pitch.

Stephen J Thorne is an award-winning journalist, editor, photographer and Legion Magazine staff writer. He has reported on the downfall of South African apartheid and from war fronts in Kosovo and Afghanistan.
Illustration by Joel Kimmel

Stephen J. Thorne says Yes

A few dozen countries have some form of compulsory military service. One would not readily guess why. Each has their own reasons for doing so.

Tiny Israel is surrounded by enemies. Men must serve 30 months in the Israeli Defense Force; women, 24.

Switzerland, on the other hand, seemingly has no enemies. It has remained neutral since 1815, through two world wars and multiple other conflicts. Yet it requires all males to serve at least 21 weeks and submit to a subsequent training regimen for an indeterminate period. Women may volunteer for any position.

South Korean men are eligible for compulsory military service between ages 18 and 30. Women aren’t required to serve, but can volunteer. Males must enlist for about two years. K-pop stars and other select celebrities can delay their service.

It’s through military service that Canadians have come together.

And a year’s military service is compulsory for Russian males 18-27 years old, minus some exemptions.

So why should Canada institute a period of mandatory military service? Because Canada is a big country with a relatively small population—just four people per square kilometre, according to the 2022 World Population Review.

Statistics Canada says almost three-quarters of Canadians live in cities. Halifax is some 6,000 kilometres from Vancouver. Toronto, some complain, is a world unto itself. For many of the 90 per cent of Canadians who live within 240 kilometres of the U.S. border, Inuvik, Iqaluit and Tuktoyaktuk might as well be on another planet.

Yet the High Arctic, the vast oceans—three of them—and all the people and places in between underscore the strengths, diversity and majesty of this country, in spite of the ever-evolving pockets of dissatisfaction that divide it.

The Canada that we know and love is said to have been founded on the battlefield of Vimy Ridge in 1917, where the four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought together for the first time, and won.

It is there, and in the battles that followed through Hill 70, Passchendaele, Cambrai and the Hundred Days that Canadians gained their sense of nationhood, independent of the “motherland,” and earned their place in the world.

And it’s through military service that Canadians from small towns and villages, big cities and remote outposts, have come together, not only to fight, but to share stories, experiences, perspectives and insights in peacetime as well as war.

The opportunities, relationships and diverse experiences a period of military service provides let Canadians see their compatriots in a new light and their land and the world firsthand. They come away with deeper understandings, greater appreciations and, for the most part, broader perspectives.

Like it or not, military service—and not necessarily war—forges
a stronger sense of country and the planet.



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